Thursday 18 January 2018

Can Cody bring Cats out of the shadows?

All-conquering Kilkenny suddenly look mortal as chasing pack close

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Brian Cody had been aware of Icelandic folklore, which holds that bathing naked in the dew on the morning of June 24 delays the ageing process, there might have been a most unusual display of Kilkenny flesh on view in Nowlan Park shortly after dawn the Monday before last.

The Kilkenny team hadn't so much looked old as tired against Dublin in Portlaoise the previous day, but in the tough world of competitive sport it can equate to much the same thing. Six days later, Kilkenny looked even wearier as they lost to Dublin, inviting parallels with another great empire and the manner in which its dominance ended.

In 1987, Kerry's footballers, the previous incarnation of the Kilkenny hurlers, in terms of prolonged supremacy, climbed out of a dark mineshaft to earn a draw with Cork in the Munster final in Pairc Ui Chaiomh, only to fall straight back down again in the replay in Killarney.

It was the end for Micko's Marvels, the men who had won eight of the previous 12 All-Ireland titles. While it was Cork that applied the knock-out punch in '87, the softening up had been started by Meath and Tyrone a year earlier. Meath gifted Kerry a soft goal in the 1986 semi-final, while Tyrone missed a penalty and squandered a seven-point second-half lead in the final.

Both Meath and Tyrone had, to some degree, been spooked by Kerry's awesome and well-deserved reputation, but that could only sustain the Kingdom for a while once the power output dropped in 1987 and, more rapidly, in subsequent years.

Was Galway's thumping hit in last year's Leinster final and subsequent close call in the drawn All-Ireland final, a pre-cursor to Kilkenny's demise in this year's championship?

Or is Kilkenny's unusual experience in recent weeks no more than a trip-switch malfunction, which will be sorted out quickly?

Much will be revealed on Saturday in what could be a season-defining game for Tipperary and an era-defining outing for Kilkenny.

The highest-profile qualifier tie in history comes after the month of June decided to burst free from the predictive strait-jacket that decreed the All-Ireland race was a three-way contest between unquestioned leaders Kilkenny, pursued by Tipperary and Galway.

You will, of course, hear plenty of voices now claiming to have had 'a feeling' that Kilkenny's race was run and that Tipperary would be early casualties in Munster.

Disregard such spoof, because there wasn't a shred of evidence to suggest that both Kilkenny and Tipperary would not be in Croke Park in August, at the very least, rather than battling for survival on the first Saturday in July.

Of course, June went a lot further than clipping Kilkenny's and Tipperary's expansive wings.

It re-energised Dublin after a listless 2012; it sent Limerick's stock soaring; it brought a reminder that Cork's natural instincts should never be ignored; it encouraged Wexford to believe that if they could draw with Dublin (who went on to beat Kilkenny) they too were on an upward curve; it restored credibility to Laois, who came out of 2A to match last year's All-Ireland runners-up all the way; it left Clare and Waterford quite confident that their season still has some way to run; it saw Carlow exit the championship in optimistic mood after the close call with Wexford and it offered Offaly some optimism as they signed off.

It's unclear where it left Galway, who struggled to shake off gritty Laois. But then it wouldn't be the first time that Galway had performed sloppily against lower-ranked opposition, only to look like a completely different team next time out.

June's fresh approach even extended to minor hurling as Limerick and Waterford booked in for their first Munster-final clash since 1958 and Laois qualified for the Leinster final for the first time since 1991.

It has been a very long time since a year, let alone a month, did so much to invigorate hurling.

What makes it all the more uplifting is that so many counties have been boosted. The knock-on effect will be hugely beneficial, because, even as counties exit from the championship, most of them will have banked enough positive experiences from this summer to leave them eagerly looking forward to next season.

Of course, the big question now is whether June was just a one-off rebellious month that refused to be bound by perceived convention or the launch of a new era where the spread of titles will be far wider than has been the case so far in the new Millennium?

Mind you, if June was indeed just a maverick month, nobody is more likely to put it in its place than Kilkenny, once they put on their July faces.

Irish Independent

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